If you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. Although it is short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it. However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness. Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’. It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations. I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.
This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic]. This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change. I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.
Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change. For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:
The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region. For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year. These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.
Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet. We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.
I was in Zürich last weekend. We visited the Fraumünster with its magnificent stained glass windows by Marc Chagall [see my post entitled ‘I and the village‘ on August 14th, 2013] and by Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947). The Kunsthaus Zürich has a large collection of sculptures by another Giacometti, Alberto (1901-1966), a Swiss sculptor, who is famous for his slender statues of people which portray individuals alone in the world. He was part of the existentialist movement in modern art that examined ideas about self-consciousness and our relationship to other people. For me, this echoed a lecture that I contributed last week to a module on Scientific Impact and Reputation as part of our CPD programme [see my post entitled ‘WOW projects, TED talks and indirect reciprocity‘ on August 31st, 2016. In the lecture, I talked about our relationship with other professional people and the development of our technical reputation in their eyes as a result of altruistic sharing of knowledge. This involves communicating with others, building relationships and understanding our place in the community. The post-course assignment is to write a reflective essay on leadership and technical quality; and we know, from past experience, that our delegates will find it difficult to reflect on their experiences and the impact of those experiences on their life and behaviour. Maybe we should help them by including a viewing of existential art in one of the Liverpool art galleries as part of our CPD programme on Science and Technology Leadership?
When I was writing about cosmic heat death a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ posted on November 2nd, 2016], I implied that our sun would expire on a shorter timescale of about 4 to 5 billion years but without mentioning what we expect to happen. The gravitational field associated with every piece of matter is proportional to the mass of the piece of matter and inversely proportional to distance from its centre. The size of the sun implies it should collapse under its own gravitational forces, except that the fusion of hydrogen in its core causes an outwards heat transfer, which prevents this from happening. The sun remains a sphere of hot gases with diameter of about 864,000 miles by ‘burning’ hydrogen. When the hydrogen runs out, the gravitational field will take over and the sun is expected to collapse to a 30,000 mile diameter ball of atoms and free electrons, or a white dwarf.
These are all spontaneous processes and so the total entropy must increase although there are some local reductions. The heat dissipated following the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei generates more entropy in the surroundings than the local reduction caused by the fusion. The collapse to white dwarf would appear to represent a substantial reduction of entropy of the sun because the atomic particles are crushed together. However, this is countered by the release of photons to the surroundings which ensures that the entropy of the surroundings increases sufficiently to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics.
Isaac Asimov, The roving mind: a panoramic view of fringe science, technology, and the society of the future, London: Oxford University Press, 1987.